The Cavern of Serpents
by Janel Brubaker
Table of Contents|
Chapters: 1, 2 3, 4, 5
Chapter Four: Medusa
Months passed. Looking back, I still can’t pinpoint the moment when Phoebe and I stepped out of friendship and into love. It was so subtle, so subdued and quiet, I think it caught us both by surprise. All I know is that it was a natural transition that must have manifested in each of our bodies before ever actually expressed.
I remember I would often stare at her while she cuddled and cooed at Viper, Boa, and Cobra; I remember how my chest would flicker at the sound of her laugh and the sight of her smile. It was so soft, so unlike anything I had believed about love, so different from the little I had witnessed of expressed passion. The transition from friendship into romantic attachment was seamless and as natural as breathing.
I remember the moment when I first pressed my lips to hers. It was, to me, as if I had always done so and I would not have realized that I had done it if she had not frozen in complete surprise. It was our custom to sleep next to each other for warmth, and my snakes preferred it to having to choose between us. I know I had whispered goodnight in her ear and then brushed my lips across hers. I moved to lay down and I felt the rigidness of her body against mine and only then realized what I’d done. I gasped.
But before I could express regret, before I could apologize, she had reached up with her hands and gently brought my face back to hers. Her lips were soft. All care was cast to the darkness of the cave; I wrapped my arms around her and pulled her to me, desperate to feel her heat and her life, thrilled to the point of breathlessness that I was wanted and desired. I had never been loved before. I had been lusted after, reduced to nothing more than an object of beauty and passion, but never had I been simply accepted. Never had I been valued.
Though I was a Gorgon, an immortal being with centuries of life experience, she was the leader that night. Alive with more passion I ever knew could fit inside a mortal form, her lips covered every inch of my body, her fingers searched and teased and played, and I was awash in the crash of a pleasure I could never have imagined. I didn’t tell her that she was my first, and I don’t know if she could tell I was completely without experience, but it didn’t matter. Our passions intertwined and our bodies connected as if they had been created for each other.
I was naked in mere moments, as was she. I remember there was a clear sky that night, and the moon cast white beams into the cave, illuminating the cavern so that I could see her well. I felt her breath heavy on my skin. Everything she did for me, I returned with fervor. My snakes disappeared, leaving us to ourselves in the moonlit darkness.
So many nights we spent like that, tangled together and searching for each other’s secrets, never tiring of the sensation of our bodies wrapped around each other. I never imagined one person could take a battered life like mine and breathe so much life into it.
Still, I held myself back. I didn’t reveal all as I now know I should have done. I didn’t tell her my real name; I didn’t explain to her that I was a Gorgon, or that my snakes were actually part of my being, manifestations of the curse placed on me; I didn’t tell her how I’d come to be in the cave. I tried to. I wanted to. Something stole the words away the moment they were on my tongue. And though I knew I loved her, I couldn’t bring myself to confess the words. I could only hear his voice, Poseidon’s voice, as he ascended out of the cave all those decades before, having just cursed me. “I will always be watching you,” he had said, that evil grin on his face. “I will never not be watching.”
I held Phoebe close to me as she slept, held her tight against my body, afraid that if I let her go he would come for her. I feared the power of the words I so wanted to express. I wanted her to hear from my own lips how much I loved her, but I knew if I confessed that truth, he might hear, and then what would he do? What if I awoke to find her gone? Dead? What if he gave her back her sight and, in the early morning, she looked on my face and was turned to stone like all the others who had come to this cave?
Each night I prayed to Athena, the goddess who had tried to hide me from Poseidon, for aid; even if only a little support, I knew I could take Phoebe away from the cave, hide her from Poseidon, keep her safe. I prayed for months. I prayed for years. I prayed until I couldn’t think of what else to pray, and she never appeared or spoke to me. I was on my own, as I knew I would be. Phoebe was in my care and I was frantic to think of how to escape the cave. And even if we did escape without detection, where would we go? At least in the cave, we could count on my garden for food and water from the underground stream. There would be no such guarantee above ground.
Moreover, I was cursed; I would leave a trail of people turned to stone wherever we went, and it would surely lead our enemies to us. Phoebe was blind. How would we find somewhere to live? How would we live? How would we defend ourselves? What would we do when Poseidon eventually came for us, as I was certain he would?
I should have confessed all to Phoebe right then. I should have given her a chance to voice her opinion. I shouldn’t have treated her as fragile. But I was scared. I couldn’t risk losing her, the one person in the world who cared about my happiness. The one person I could make a life with. I thought it was kinder to keep these issues hidden, kinder to bear the weight of our love entirely on my own shoulders.
It was to be our undoing.
The demi-god came down into the cave a little over two years after Phoebe. The caverns in which we lived were vast and extensive with outcroppings that stretched for miles. I don’t know how long it took him to find her, but find her he did. I didn’t know what had happened when I heard her scream, nor did I know where in the cave she was, but the moment her scream reached me, a piece of me died. I thought that Poseidon had come at last.
I panicked and then I ran toward the sound of her scream, not knowing if it was the right direction. I shouted her name, I sent my snakes in search of her, I looked in all of her favorite places and found only emptiness. In my fearful state I started to wonder if she had ever been there at all, or if she was the making of a Gorgon’s mind gone mad?
I found her lying on her side near the entrance, an arrow in her shoulder. I looked around for who had shot her and, seeing no one in the immediate vicinity, I crouched next to her and reached out. She pulled away, unable to tell who I was.
“It’s me,” I said, laying a comforting hand on her arm. “It’s all right, it’s just me.”
“Don’t touch me,” she said, shoving my hand aside. She tried to crawl away, but with only one arm to support herself, she didn’t get far.
“Phoebe,” I said, looking around to make sure the intruder wasn’t waiting for the right moment to strike, “we have to move. He might return.” I didn’t know who he was, but I could sense that he wasn’t an ally. I mentally cursed at myself for not having sensed his presence earlier. I might have been able to keep him out of the cave had I been more attentive.
She gave up trying to put space between us and faced me. She wore cloth over the hollow spaces of her eyes, but even through the cloth and without eyes to stare into, I knew that everything was different between us. I saw it in the rigidity of her body and the heaviness of her breathing. The intruder had said something. “What did he tell you?” I asked.
“He thought I was you,” she said, motioning to the arrow. “He shot me so that I wouldn’t turn him into stone.” She half-laughed, half-cried, sucking in quick breaths. “He said you’re Medusa, one of the three Gorgon sisters.” It was stated like an accusation. “That’s why you told me to call you Python; that explains all of the snakes.” More accusations. I could hear in her voice that the love between us, the unspoken affection, was dying. The poison of my existence, of the curse cast over me, was destroying the only good thing to ever manifest in that cave.
“I am Medusa,” I said.
I felt as though I were turning to stone.
She turned her face away from me, and I turned my back to her. I knew I could explain, that I should explain, but my fear of rejection was too strong. Instead, I stood and ran. I don’t think I was looking for the intruder, and even if I were, I wouldn’t have found him. I needed to be away from her. I couldn’t occupy a space where our love was replaced with disgust, with strangeness. I knew her better than I knew myself. I could have brushed my hands through her hair, and I would have known if it were her. I knew her smell. I knew her taste. And now I was less than a stranger.
I found an outcropping and I planted myself there. If the intruder arrived, I would fight. He never came. I waited hours and then returned to where I’d left Phoebe. She was gone. I fell to my knees and sobbed. The one love the gods allowed for me and it was undone not by them, but by my own foolishness, my own inability to trust.
I cried for days. I went through the entire series of caverns and outcroppings and I toppled every statue of those I’d turned to stone in the one-hundred years since I’d been cursed. Where before I’d left them up to remind myself never to become what they thought of me, I destroyed them then because I finally realized I would never be anything but the monster they feared, the monster they’d come to destroy. Not even love could break this curse.
It was then I knew what I needed to do. It was what I should have done when I was first cursed: wreck havoc on the world of injustice. I knew that if I left the cave, Poseidon would look for me. And if he found me, he would kill me. But that would take time, even for the god of the sea. And, until then, I would plan. I would prepare. I would rally. If I was doomed to be seen as a monster for the rest of my life, then I might as well do something to deserve it.
“You should have learned,” I said aloud, wondering if Poseidon could hear my voice, “that snakes strike when they feel cornered.”
He had wrestled with the wrong serpent.
Copyright © 2018 by Janel Brubaker